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Was Osama Bin Laden’s killing legal?

09 May 2011 Blog, General | Comments
Was Osama Bin Laden’s killing legal?

As almost everyone knows, Osama Bin Laden was killed on the 1st of May 2011 at Abbottabad, Pakistan in a night-time raid by two dozen U.S. Navy SEALs. After a massive sigh of relief from most Americans the question started to pop up about the legality of killing Osama Bin Laden.

There is an Executive Order 11905, created in 1976, that states that “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination”. In 1981 President Reagan signed Executive Order 12333 which added, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination”.

The Public Law 107-40 was passed by the U.S. Congress a week after the 11 September 2001 attacks. It states that the president is authorized to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

The Public Law 107-40 basically sums up how much they became focussed on stopping any terrorist threats. The law says that the president can authorize a direct attack on anyone directly responsible for the attacks or even any nation that is harboring these individuals.  Bin Laden’s compound was only 800 feet away from a big Pakistan military base. Although America’s mistrust of Pakistan is big enough to secretly invade the country (using a secret stealth chopper), I doubt that they would break off relations all together. Its sounds too much like a job for “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

Going back to the question of the legality: The original Executive Order was more directed at heads of state. Bin Laden was the head of an organisation that carried out terrorist attacks around the world and planned further attacks. The new attacks were to come this year on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The attacks were to include the derailment of multiple trains. The Public Law 107-40 announced an open season on all people carrying out terrorist attacks or directly supporting the terrorist cause leading to future attacks.

So far as I can see these points make the killing of Osama Bin Laden legal :

  • Osama Bin Laden wasn’t the head of any state;
  • He already carried out attacks on America and was planning more;
  • It was legal in the eyes of the U.S. law considering Public Law 107-40;
  • If Osama carried a weapon when the SEALs entered his room then he was legally a combatant.

Some additional questions that I have regarding this whole episode :

  • Is it legal in the eyes of International Law? What can they do about it?
  • Did he have a weapon with him or not?
  • It is very likely that only 2 or 3 seconds passed between the SEALs entering his room and him lying dead on the floor. Was there time for him to surrender? Probably not, but the safety of the SEALs come first. In early reports I read that he was shot in the head just above the left eye, then in the chest ‘to make sure he is dead’. We may never know.
  • During war, can any head of state be targeted for killing?
  • If the head of state cannot be targeted, can the second-in-command be targeted or is that still seen as assassination?
  • Is it only assassination if you know the name of the person you are killing?
  • Is it legal if a bomb drops on a command center and the leader ‘happened to be there’?

For me the whole assassination law is pretty vague. If your country is engaged in a war with another country then all military personnel on both sides are legitimate targets. Naturally the military machine cannot run without the revenue generating economy of the civilians, but these civilians cannot be targeted directly. Civilians are rarely interested in war. The fruits of their labor has been rerouted from running the country to stopping another country from doing what it’s doing. For me the most annoying part is that killing the lower ranks of the military is not an issue, but killing the leaders that are driving the aggression is. The quickest way to stop a war is to directly threaten the enemy leaders and government with force. At the moment the only time when leaders stop fighting a full-scale war is when they run out of people to throw into the meat grinder.

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